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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Amos 5

 

 

Verses 1-27

Moral Discipline

Amos 5

"Hear ye this word which I take up against you, even a lamentation, O house of Israel" ( Amos 5:1).

This is a dirge. It is as if a man were present at his own burial, hearing the solemn words, "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust;" the whole lot over, the whole tale run off, its very last syllable uttered, whispered, and all this poor little cloud-life behind;—a dirge, a lamentation, a wail as of the heart. That may be beautiful, or it may be lacking in every line of beauty and every tone of music. There is nothing to regret about vanished life. Some men are longing to see the other side, the completing time, the perfect place, the city that hath foundations. They have had enough of it at present; they are wearied with its monotony; it is to-day and tomorrow and the third day—all a repetition of yesterday; a coming and going of clouds, a rising and falling of prospects, promises, hopes, a stinging of disappointment, a gratification that becomes sour in the mouth: they want to see the other side.

But this is a dirge over a fallen house, the more fallen that it is spoken of in the feminine gender: "The virgin of Israel,"—beauty withered, promise come to nothing but fruits of darkness, and all the favour, all the grace of God lost in an ineffable disappointment of the divine heart. Then the dirge is not beautiful; its plaintiveness is like the sigh of a great sorrow that cannot rise to the relief of words. How is it to be with our life? We too live, we also must die; what shall be said of us? Shall it be a broken column that is put on our last resting-place? Not necessarily and poetically indicating youth, but meaning that the life was broken, its noblest purposes thwarted, all that looked loveliest about it in childhood lost. How fair the morning was in some cases, how tender the dawning light! Parental eyes looked upon it, and filled with tears as they saw all the beauty come and go; and then the clouds gathered, and the noonday was premature night. Every man must answer the question himself. It lies in the power of every man to insult and dishonour God; it lies in the power of every man to increase the song that swells the fame of Jesus.

Now the Lord will be gracious. He adopts a word, and repeats it—a word full of evangelical importunity, and also full of the spirit of evangelical monition and warning. How did Amos come by this word "Seek"? It is Isaiah"s word; it suited his mouth well; his were evangelical lips, they were full of the gospel of reconciliation and peace and offered pardon. Here comes a rough blunt speaker, a cowherd rather than a shepherd. Some have tried to make Amos a shepherd—which indeed he was in some partial degree, but he was in reality and fully a cowherd. Yet he takes up Isaiah"s word, and represents the Lord as saying, "Seek ye me, and ye shall live; ... seek not Beth-el.... Seek the Lord, and ye shall live." Isaiah said, "Seek ye the Lord while he may be found; call ye upon him while he is near." The blessed Saviour said, "Seek and ye shall find." He represented himself as a seeker; he said, "The Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost." Does this word seeking indicate something that is perfunctory, easily done; that may be accomplished in some offhand or careless way? The word itself is full of burning energy. "What woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?" She seeks for the piece that was lost, not leisurely, easily, occasionally, now and again as the mood may change, but she makes it the one business of the moment; she has time for nothing else, she is sensible of incompleteness and loss and indignity, and she must find the piece, though it be but the tenth, that was lost. We have to seek wisdom as men seek for silver and for hidden treasure, for gold far down in the earth. That is the true seeking. Many shall seek to enter in, and shall not be able, because they may not seek in the right spirit, or they may seek at an hour too late; the seeking is lost, either for want of energy, or because the Lord hath arisen and hath shut to the door. How have we sought the Lord? Intellectually, speculatively, metaphysically? Have we asked many questions concerning him to which intellectual answers might be given? or have we gone to his door and said, Never more do we leave this door until it be opened from the inside? Then we did not wait too long. On the door is written, "Knock, and it shall be opened unto you," and on the pathway that leads up to the door is written, "Seek, and ye shall find."

Observe the element ox energy that alone distinguishes this word. It is the energy that has been wanting in our quest. We have not been wholly irreligious, we resent the suspicion or suggestion of being irreligious—that never occurred to our mind; we were only too willing to acknowledge the existence of God, if by intellectual assent we could escape moral responsibility. No man can have much objection to a metaphysical deity; it is when God comes down to search the heart and hold inquest in the life, it is when he tries the reins of the conscience, that we hate him. How have we sought the Lord? With one hand have we knocked at his door when we ought to have thundered upon it with both, like men who have made up their minds not to be refused. How long have we tarried at his altar? Have we said our prayer, or prayed it? That is the difference. Have we mumbled words, or have they gone out of us, carrying with them virtue, energy, passion, vehement yet loyal determination? The Lord will not be found by those who seek him otherwise than with their whole heart He does not stand for cross-examination by the intellect; he is not to be victimised by clever interrogators; he does not offer himself to be analysed or criticised by the mere intellectual faculty; he will halt nowhere but at the door of the broken heart; he will answer no question that is not marked by the modesty and trembling of the contrite spirit. In all this sanctuary life, study, service, spirit goes for everything. Not the much speaking, but the great speaking, brings God to our aid.

There is a seeking that is condemned in this very connection. To the indication of that seeking these remarks have led us:—

"Ye who turn judgment to wormwood, and leave off righteousness in the earth, seek him that maketh the seven stars and Orion" ( Amos 5:7-8).

This is a vice and this the iniquity of to-day. The people were not atheists, but they turned God into a deity. It is that word "deity" that shocks him; it is too fine, too remote from the heart"s need; one of those dainty words that men cannot use when they are in earnest Israel did not regard the universe as self-made, but Israel was content to worship nature. Israel said, Show me the Pleiades, the seven stars, the angel lights of spring; how lovely, oh, how diamond-like; how beauteous in their white loveliness! Yea, Israel said, I will look upon belted Orion, star of the winter solstice. How grand, how noble! I could worship that rough austere Orion.

Degenerate Israel has many successors. There be those who want to hug the house and neglect the Builder; and the Builder will not have it so. This is a condemnation of nature-worship. If men might be pardoned in any idolatry, surely it would be in the idolatry of the stars. The poets have taken the Pleiades under their patronage. Children early ask, when they begin to read the open heavens, Where are the Pleiades? Which is the Milky Way? Show us the evening or the morning star. There is a kind of religiousness about that. So to-day men have left the Church to go and worship the open primrose, the flowing stream, the trilling, singing bird; and they have gone into raving over the noonday sun; as for night, they have made her blush by their praises. The Lord will not have these compliments. He says, introductorily, All these little eulogiums come out of a rotten heart; ye who have turned judgment to wormwood, and left off righteousness in the earth, ye have become mere star-worshippers. What easier, what cheaper, what less disciplinary? Having killed judgment, and stabbed righteousness, let us go out and look at the Pleiades, and wonder at the majesty of Orion. Even nature cannot be worshipped by the iniquitous spirit. Where the moral self is dead the worshipping self is dead also. Even though that worship be offered to a stone, the stone coldly rejects the adoration. For the stones are God"s; all the pebbles belong to him, all the tiny shells on the seashore, that try in their impotent way to mimic the roar of the ocean, are all in God"s bottle, they belong to the One Proprietor. Yet how noble it looks, and specially how intellectual, how consistent with dandyism and worldliness, selfishness, and all manner of littleness it is to be fond of the Pleiades. All this, observe, has been anticipated, discounted, set down at its value in the inventory which God takes of all the universe. We are tempted to leave men who preach to us and pray for us, that we may go out and look at nature. We then go from the greater to the less. There is no little child that babbles its first half-music of words that is not greater than the biggest Orion that ever flamed in the heavens; there is no Prayer of Manasseh , be he deaf, dumb, blind, poor, almost neglected by death, as if it could not condescend to his sepulture, that is not of more worth than all the worlds that glitter in the crown of night. This is the view which Jesus Christ takes of human nature. Surely the man is not a great Prayer of Manasseh , a great speaker, a mighty suppliant; surely there are men who are greater than he is in intellectual capacity and in various quality of mind and soul; and yet somehow by a call not earthly he has to say to the world what nobody else can say; he is the minister of the Cross. We contemn his speech, we criticise his manner, and we say, Come, let us climb the mountain, and blow kisses to the Pleiades, and say, O sweet stars, we hail you, and let us leave this word-beggar (as they called the Apostle Paul in Athens) to rave about Jesus and the resurrection. But the preacher will outlive them all. The preacher cannot be killed. So long as he is faithful to the Cross, so long as he yields himself not to his own invention, but to God"s inspiration, he abides evermore, and will be most a man when most needed.

It will be profitable still further to dwell upon the cause of this worship of nature.

"Ye who turn judgment to wormwood, and leave off righteousness in the earth" ( Amos 5:7).

This is the reason why men leave the Church. It is not the reason upon the surface; it is never pleaded as the reason. A man has perverted righteousness, and then he leaves the sanctuary that he may escape upbraiding. When you find a man so intellectual that he cannot sing the old hymns and listen to the old discourses, know that that man has somewhere broken down morally. Not in any vulgar sense of crime; he may be outwardly as respectable as ever, he may himself be hardly conscious of the break-down; but he has gone down in moral quality at some point. A man who loves judgment and upholds righteousness cannot dine upon the Pleiades, or fill his soul when Orion; he must have moral satisfaction, spiritual impulse and inspiration; he must put aside every intervening star that he may get at the central sorrow of the universe, the Cross of the ever-slain Lamb. Were we not supported by history we should accuse ourselves of severity in this judgment. But we are supported by experience. We know human nature. Throughout this chapter the Lord insists upon moral discipline. If any one had an interest in the worship of the Pleiades it would be the Maker of them; he set those seven stars in their places, and it might delight him that any one of his creatures lifted up wondering eyes from the earth, and fixed them upon the glowing cluster, and said, How lovely! But the Lord—let us renew the affirmation—will not have it so. What will he have? "Seek good, and not evil, that ye may live.... Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish judgment in the gate." The Lord will have righteousness, judgment, equity, good conduct. When he sees men treading down the poor—for verse eleven represents a continuous action: "Forasmuch therefore as your treading is upon the poor, and ye take from him burdens of wheat"—he says, I will not hear you. No worshipper must walk over dead bodies that he may say his prayers at some altar; no man must come to sing a psalm with mechanical exactness while he has left a man outside whose wounds he might have healed. But is it not enough that we say, O Pleiades, how lovely! O stars of the Milky Way, how bright and gleaming? The Lord says, Whilst your heads are lifted up to the stars your feet are set upon the necks of the poor, and I will not have you in my sanctuary. The Lord will not allow us to take holy sacrament until we have been away to see the man whom we have wronged; when our hands are put out towards the symbolic flesh, he says, Touch it not; go out and do that which is right, then come back and eat this bread from heaven. When Israel leaves the trespass offering, and the sin offering, and the very spirit of sacrifice, and begins to rave about the beauties of rainbow and star and dawning morning, the Lord says, Go out and do that which is right, then come back, for otherwise you insult the heavens that you attempt to praise. The wonder is that all men do not instantly yield themselves to the spirits of the Bible, because it insists upon judgment and righteousness, equity, fairness, generosity, purity, nobleness.

In the midst of all this entreaty and expostulation there occurs an admonition significant in all times: "Woe unto you that desire the day of the Lord!" What is the meaning of such a woe? The meaning is that the people supposed the day of the Lord would avenge them. Their notion was that the day of the Lord would be a dark outlook for their enemies; they were going up and down the land, saying, When the day of the Lord comes, then we shall get our rights, then we shall be vindicated; when the day of the Lord comes, then our respectability will be established, and we shall be promoted to high places in the universe. The prophet says, Do not tempt the day of the Lord: it will be an awful day for everybody—a day of searching, of penetrating inquest; it will leave nothing unturned or unexamined. Do not suppose that the day of the Lord will all be in your favour; whilst you are criticising other people, the Lord himself is criticising you, and every arrow he sends falls into your heart, and will rankle there until his own hand shall extract it. Yet there are people who suppose that all the arrangements of providence have been made more or less in their favour and in favour of their family; they regard the day of judgment as the day on which all their ancestry will be brought up to their proper places, and all their respectability will be not only vindicated, but enlarged and glorified, and then people will see what wonderful excellence has been despised. Amos says, Let me hear no such partial criticism. Amos does not speak his own word, but the word of the Lord; he says, Many shall be last who are first, and many shall be first who are last, and the adjustment and classification must be left in God"s hands. Wondrous Book! Holy Bible! When the poor man has no counsel it stands up and says, I will be his advocate. When the dumb man cannot speak for himself, the angel of the book comes forth and says, I will open my lips for the dumb. When oppressed men stoop because their lives are crushed out of them, the Lord takes up their defence, and he sends a fire upon the palaces of the wicked.

Now the Lord by the mouth of his prophet resorts once more to parables in the form of questions: "Shall not the day of the Lord be darkness, and not light? even very dark, and no brightness in it?" This is an appeal to conscience. The Lord never allows judgment to go until conscience has spoken. What will the day of the Lord be to you? What have you done in advance with regard to the day of the Lord? How have you prepared yourselves for it? What has been all your previous life? When you awaken on the morning of inquest, how will you stand before the universe? But Israel had not neglected the outer services; Israel had preserved a certain religious semblance. The Lord knew that, and remarked upon it in words that are blunt, definite, unmistakable in their moral severity: "I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies. Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them: neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts. Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs": literally, Take them from me. The figure is that of burdening the Lord, laying all the sacrifices upon him again and again, and he says, Take them off, unburden me. The Lord will carry no weight; but in his heart you may hide all your sin and all your grief. He will not have anything superimposed upon him, but if you approach him contritely, penitently, lovingly, he will take all your sorrow, and carry all your sicknesses,—"Casting all your care upon him: for he careth for you." A mechanical piety loads and distresses God; a spiritual worship satisfies the soul of Christ. What wilt thou have, then, thou Judge of all the earth? what shall it be? Thou wilt not have our worship of the Pleiades and of Orion; thou wilt not have our offerings and our sacrifices wherewith we load thee. What wilt thou? The answer is here: "Let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream." Then the Lord will come near. He will have nothing to do with our wrongdoing, our upbuilding of iniquity, our vindication of oppression. Our vindication may be eloquent; it may excite the applause of listening senates, people all over the world may cheer it with acclamation; but the Lord will not have anything that has wrong at the heart of it. Take out that worm, heal that interior iniquity: "Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again." An evangelical word, charged with all the mystery of God the Father, God the Song of Solomon , and God the Holy Ghost; charged with the eternal mystery of salvation by the blood of Christ. If you ask the question, What is it to be born again? you will have the answer. God can answer in many ways and in many tones. He can fill the very air with replies to the inquiries of the heart.

Prayer

Almighty God, thou art every day showing us thy goodness; therefore thou wilt one day show us what we may be able to bear of thy glory. Goodness and mercy have accompanied us all the days of our life; we cannot remember one day of orphanage, forsakenness, and cloud without a break. Every morning thou dost give us a new song; every eventide thou dost rewrite the covenant of thy faithfulness. Thy mercies bedew all the hours. How good is the Lord, yea, how great in love and great in pity; how thou dost stoop over the children of men, how thou dost gather the lambs in thy bosom. Thou art Father, Shepherd, Redeemer; thou art the Physician of the sick, and thou findest balm for those who are in utterest despair. Thou dost not withhold thy Song of Solomon , and he is the pledge of all other gifts; in the Cross all gifts are little, yea, heaven itself is nothing after Calvary; because thou hast freely given thy Son to us, thou wilt also with him give immortality and heaven and all glory. But herein is love; this is the noonday of thy pity and mercy, thy compassion and love; we see it all on Calvary. He was wounded, was our Saviour, for our transgressions; he was bruised, was this Son of Prayer of Manasseh , for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon our Kinsman, and by his stripes we are healed. We know not the mystery of all this love and righteousness, this law and mercy; it is enough that thou dost know, living, loving, eternal Father. Thou hast sent a voice of judgment amongst the children of men; thou hast never been complacent with unrighteousness, injustice, cruelty, wrong, darkness, oppression; thou hast thundered against them in great blasts and tempests from Zion; the Lord hath roared through the ages, and his voice has ever been against the children of wickedness. And thou dost smile upon those who endeavour to serve thee, who put their hands in thine, and say, with childlike tenderness and perfectness of trust, Lord, lead me: I am little, I am ignorant, I am blind, lead me day by day, and tell me when to open my eyes, for when thou dost say, Open thine eyes, behold we shall see God and heaven. Amen.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Amos 5:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/amos-5.html. 1885-95.

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Sunday, January 19th, 2020
Second Sunday after Epiphany
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